INCHEON/SEOUL (KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans flocked to polling stations across the nation on Thursday (May 4) to choose their next president, two months after the previous one was ousted from office in disgrace and amid regional tension over a belligerent North Korea.
Instead of voting on the scheduled election day of Tuesday (May 9), many chose to cast ballots earlier as they have to work or have other plans, such as a trip to vacation hot spots.
Some 3,500 polling stations are open across the nation from 6am to 6pm from Thursday to Friday.
When The Korea Herald visited airports, other transport hubs and local community centres on Thursday, the lines were long and the enthusiasm was palpable.
At Incheon International Airport, Koreans lined up to vote on the third floor before travelling abroad for the three-day weekend that starts with Children’s Day on Friday.
“I had to vote this time, given all the irregularities we have witnessed for the past several months,” Choi Jeong Mok, a 28-year-old officer worker, said while waiting in line with his girlfriend.
“It is convenient to vote in advance. Now, I can now relax and enjoy my trip to Vietnam.”
At Seoul Station, which is usually filled with passengers scurrying to catch their trains, there were approximately 50 people in line at advance polling stations on the third floor.
“I stopped on my way to vote before heading off to my hometown Ulsan to visit my parents during the holidays,” said Jang Soo Geun, a 19-year-old medical student at a Seoul-based university, who reached voting age this year.
“I personally support the People’s Party candidate Ahn Cheol Soo because he seems to grasp the meaning of the fourth industrial revolution and vowed to support students majoring in science.”
It marks the first early-voting for a presidential election after the measure was introduced 2013 in hopes of boosting voter turnout.
Unlike absentee voting that only allows those likely to be absent on election day to vote in advance, early voting allows any eligible voter to do so regardless of reason.
More than 42.4 million people are eligible to vote in the upcoming election, the largest number in the country's history, according to the National Election Commission.
As of 2 pm Thursday, 8 hours after the polls opened, voter turnout was 7.06 per cent, far exceeding the 3.33 percent recorded at the corresponding time in the 2016 general election and 2.9 percent in the 2014 local elections.
About 2.99 million, out of the 42.47 million registered voters, have cast their ballots, according to the National Election Commission.
Many political watchers say the final turnout of the two-day early voting may surpass 20 percent, compared with 12.2 percent in the April 13 general election last year.
“Amid the voting participation fever, there is a high possibility that the turnout will break through the 20 per cent mark and approach 25 per cent,” said Sehan University professor Bae Jong Ho.
Overseas voters had cast their ballots late last month. All advance votes will be kept sealed and be counted alongside all other votes at the end of polling day on Tuesday (May 9), the NEC has said.
The election, which was originally scheduled to be held in December, was triggered by former President Park Geun Hye’s impeachment in March over the corruption scandal involving her and her inner circle.
She is now on trial on a string of charges including bribery and abuse of authority.
Many of office workers carved out their time from work to vote during their lunch break.
At Sogong-dong community centre, which is located at the heart of Seoul’s busy office districts, the line outside the centre stretched out a few blocks into the street.
“I came here to vote during lunch because I’m usually too wrapped up with my work,” said Park Ho Yong, a 37-year-old office worker who works in Gwanghwamun. “I’m planning to relax on the actual election day. I hope someone who keeps their promises becomes the next president.”
The long line even made some people turn back.
“I think I’m going to come back later in the afternoon or tomorrow to vote,” said Ahn Ji Soo, a 29-year-old office worker.
But there have been complaints over a lack of voting booths and locations. At airports in particular, many travelers waited nervously in long lines to cast ballots before leaving the country.
An airport official Hong Seok Young said that the line stretched 90 meters and voters had to wait about 40 minutes if they arrived between 6am and 9am.
“I saw some people who left without voting after checking the time. There were a 70-meter-long line even before the polling stations opened,” she said. “Many of the voters used a ‘fast track’ set aside for those who had less than 40 minutes left till their planes’ took off.”
“I hope there is another polling station on the ‘arrival’ floor for tourists’ convenience,” said Lee Ji Hye, 24, who arrived at the airport after a trip to Japan.
The National Election Commission said that it did not expect such a high turnout at early voting stations.
“We installed seven voting booths in the last general election, this time, we increased the number fivefold. We didn’t know there would be so many people (voting early) like this,” said an official from the NEC.
“We are only allowed to set up a limited number of booths in accordance with the election law.”
With the top executive office currently vacant, the single five-year term of the next president will begin immediately following his or her election.
Currently, 13 hopefuls are vying for the presidential office after two candidates dropped out of the race.
The latest poll on the presidential election published Wednesday showed Moon Jae In of the liberal Democratic Party in the lead with 42.4 per cent. Ahn Cheol Soo of the centre-left People's Party and Hong Joon Pyo of the former ruling Liberty Korea Party were tied for second place, at 18.6 per cent.
Sim Sang Jeung of the progressive Justice Party polled fourth with 7.3 per cent, while Yoo Seong Min of the splinter conservative Bareun Party was fifth at 4.9 per cent.